Whether you consider Edward Snowden a patriot or a traitor, it’s hard not to be captivated by the story of how he exposed some of the U.S. government’s deepest-held secrets.

Snowden’s first meetings with the journalists who helped shine a light on the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs are the subject of a gripping documentary entitled Citizenfour, which opens Friday. Directed by filmmaker and Pulitzer Prize winning-journalist Laura Poitras, the movie was made in secret as the third installment in Poitras' trilogy of films about post-9/11 America. After her 2007 Iraq war film My Country, My Country--which received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary--and 2010 documentary The Oath about Guantanamo Bay, Poitras was classified as a threat by the U.S. government and placed on a secret watchlist.

Much of Citizenfour takes place in a hotel room where Snowden reveals the details of the NSA’s massive spying programs to Poitras and former Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald. The documentary frames Snowden’s criticism of the NSA’s overreaching data collection practices with commentary from security experts including William Binney, a cryptomathematician and former NSA official, and computer security researcher and activist Jacob Applebaum. One of the strongest voices in the film is that of the Guardian’s Greenwald, who, between publishing stories about the NSA's top secret operations, speaks out in defense of Snowden and other whistleblowers fighting for government accountability. Make no mistake about it: This film is definitely a story about an abuse of power, with Snowden as the hero who helped expose it. But the film is successful largely because it avoids a preachy tone that would make the message less compelling.

The Backstory

In January of 2013, while working on a documentary about surveillance after 9/11, Poitras began receiving encrypted emails from Snowden, who identified himself as “a senior government employee in the intelligence community” and signed his emails, “Citizen Four.”

“Know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cellphone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit and subject line you type, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not,” Snowden wrote in his first email to Poitras. 

After several months of communicating online, Poitras and Greenwald meet the 29-year-old Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room, where he begins by explaining his motivation for becoming a whistleblower and subjecting himself to the consequences that will result from his actions.

"For me, it all comes down to state power and the public’s ability to oppose that power," he says. "These are not my issues. They’re everybody’s issues... I am more willing to risk imprisonment, or any other negative outcome personally, than I am willing to risk the curtailment of my intellectual freedom and that of those around me."

The documentary portrays Snowden as a highly principled activist defending human rights, rather than a fame-hungry government employee seeking worldwide notoriety. It also builds a convincing argument that the U.S. government violated the public's rights by eliminating the need for the NSA to obtain a warrant before gaining access to Americans' phone and email data. One of the key points the film drives home is that, since 2011, the American government has used the threat of terrorism as an excuse to spy on anyone it pleases, even in situations that have nothing to do with national security. In the U.S., the Espionage Act, introduced during World War I, doesn't distinguish between the sharing of classified information that is in the public's interest and the selling of secrets to foreign governments.

An open question

One of the only frustrating aspects of Citizenfour is the fact that the story doesn't offer a satisfactory resolution--Edward Snowden's fate is far from sealed. After traveling to Russia, where he was restricted to the Moscow airport for 40 days, Snowden was granted temporary asylum and ultimately given a three-year residence permit. Back in the U.S., he faces espionage charges including theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person.

As an international group of lawyers working on Snowden's behalf discusses his options, one of them states that, whatever the outcome, 95 percent of the decision will be based on politics, while around 5 percent will be based on the law. 

Even if you disagree with Snowden's actions, the documentary draws some very concrete, if troubling, conclusions about privacy. In America, and throughout the world, there is the sense that whenever one uses a cell phone or the Internet, the government is watching. 

"The vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting," Snowden says. "The balance of power between the citizenry and government is becoming that of the ruling and the ruled."

Published on: Oct 24, 2014